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Are You Destined to Get Your Parents' Illnesses?

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WebMD Feature

Have you been told you've got your father's eye color or your mother's curly hair? These physical traits are a product of genes you inherited from your parents. If your mom has heart disease and your dad has colon cancer, you might also have inherited a greater chance of getting these diseases. But don't worry, it's not a sure thing.

With conditions like cancer, Alzheimer's, diabetes, and heart disease, your genes aren't always destiny. You can likely overcome your heredity and stay disease-free by making smarter health decisions.

Genes and Disease

Genes lead to disease in different ways. "With some diseases, it's almost certain that if you inherit that gene you'll inherit the disease. But for other diseases it's a matter of increased risk," says Soren Snitker, MD, PhD. He's an associate professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.

Some conditions, like Huntington's disease, are caused by a change to a single gene. If you have a parent with this disease, then you've got a 50-50 chance of getting it yourself.

Many other diseases, like type 2 diabetes or cancer, are caused by a combination of gene changes and lifestyle habits.

"A person can trump a lot of the inherited risk with very healthy behaviors," says Donald Lloyd-Jones, MD, ScM. He is chair of the department of preventive medicine at the Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.

A good example of lifestyle trumping genes comes from a study of Amish people done by Snitker and other researchers. They looked at a gene called FTO, which contributes to obesity. Amish people with the gene who exercised didn't put on weight. They were able to overcome their gene by staying active.

Trump Your Genes

Not only can you override your genes by taking good care of yourself, you could even change how they function. A growing field of research is looking at how lifestyle choices affect our genetic makeup.

Behaviors don't change the genes themselves. They change the way the genetic information is used to make the proteins that control different body functions.

"The idea is that there are different ways that you can activate or inactivate genes based on what you do in your lifestyle," says Adam Rindfleisch, MD. He is an associate professor in family medicine and fellowship director of integrative medicine at the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health.

No matter what your genetic makeup, you can avoid diseases like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease by adopting a few healthy habits:

Should You Get Tested?

Is it worth having a genetic test to learn your disease risk? In some cases seeing a genetic counselor and getting tested can be helpful.

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